Friday, March 7, 2014

Monuments Men

It is not often that a conservator appears in a movie – we are one of those professions that tend to operate under the radar, hidden away in the back of museums. But when we do hit the limelight we like to do it in style, so it is great to see a conservator playing a lead role in the recently released Monuments Men, played by none other than George Clooney.

George plays the central character of George Stout (called Frank Stokes in the film) who was a key player in the Monuments Men, or to give them their full title, the Monuments, Fine Art and Archives (MFA&A) section. Set up by the Allied Forces in World War II, they were entrusted with the mission of locating and protecting works taken by the Nazi Regime. The film is based on the book of the same name by Robert Edsel, and tells their remarkable story, based around a simple job description: to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat.
Stout packing Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges in the mines at Altaussee, Austria, July 1945

There are many angles that could be followed off the back of the story, from Hitler’s grand plans for the museum to outdo all other museums, the FuhrerMuseum in his birthplace, Linz, Austria to the recent discovery of 1378 looted works of art in the Munich home of Cornelius Gurlitt.

However, warming to our theme, let us return to George Stout and the conservation component of the Monuments Men story. Stout studied art history at Harvard and was then drawn to the Fogg Museum (part of Harvard) for its unique approach of applying science to the study and preservation of art, at a time when art restoration was the preserve of art historian or artists. In 1928, the Fogg director, Edward W. Forbes established the Fogg’s Department for Technical Studies and named Stout as the museum’s first conservator. In 1932 they launched 'Technical Studies in the Field of the Fine Arts', the first journal dedicated to conservation related research. Partnering with the chemist John Gettens, Stout then went on to produce 'Paintings Materials, A Short Encyclopaedia', which remains today a standard reference for conservators.

As the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 increased fears that the war would reach America, Stout began work on a ‘cultural first aid’ manual for  the armed forces called 'Notes on Safeguarding and Conserving Cultural Material in the Field'. So he was an obvious choice to be one of the first to join the Monuments Men when it was formed in 1942. After the war he continued to have a distinguished career, becoming director of the Worcester Art Museum and the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston. More importantly, as a result of his Monuments Men experience and his appreciation of how international conservation professionals can work so well together, he was the driving force and one of the founding members of the International Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC) of which I am privileged to be currently Vice President.

Enjoy the film, but do also read the book as it tells an astonishing story about some truly passionate men who in the end saved some 2.5 million items including 468,000 works of art.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Xanana Gusmao's 'Tunnel of Time'

Xanana Gusmao is famous for his inspirational role in the struggle for independence, and founding of Timor-Leste.  As an accomplished artist he is less well known.  I've been lucky enough to meet him and discuss this part of his life, as a result of which ICS has been conserving a number of his paintings.

The amazing aspect to this is that Gusmao is self taught. As he explained to me, he was at the time imprisoned by the Indonesian government in Cipinang prison in Jakarta for his role in leading Fretilin, the Timor independence militia.  Fellow prisoners were encouraged to yell abuse at him in his cell, and one day his food delivery flap opened but instead of the usual tirade, it turned out to be a friendly warder asking what he was spending his time doing in the cell. Suggesting he might like to try painting, the warder gave him a blank canvas, a brush and some paint tubes. When Gusmao protested that he had not a clue as to how to start, the warder told him to just try it out and if he didn't like the result, he could just paint over the top again.

Thus began an artistic journey that was quickly encouraged by his Australian wife, Kirsty Sword Gusmao, who sent Gusmao  various 'how to' books.  Given the time he had on his hands, and progressively relaxed conditions allowing access to materials he became increasingly skilful.

He decided to draw images of his early life growing up in Timor, but also to illustrate the pain of being separated from his wife. He did this by painting Kirsty from behind looking into a mirror, creating a new image with a further mirror  as each year of separation passed (see image below). In all he painted six of these highly evocative images, a series of paintings now known as Gusmao's 'Tunnel of Time'.

Last December the restored paintings were placed in their permanent position in the new Gusmao Reading Room in the cultural centre in Dili, unveiled by his sons (see image below) , where they rightly have now become part of the artistic patrimony of this young nation.

For the full story visit

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mr Archibald and his fountain

We are conserving the Archibald Fountain in Sydney’s Hyde Park North at present. It’s quite a privilege as it is widely regarded as the finest fountain in Australia. It’s full title is the J. F. Archibald Memorial Fountain, and it was unveiled on 14th March 1932 by Sydney’s Lord Mayor Samuel Walder, just five days before the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Mr J.F. Archibald, the founding editor of the Bulletin, after whom the Art Gallery of NSW’s Archibald portrait prize is also named, bequeathed the funds necessary to build the fountain, with one specific request – the fountain had to be designed by a French artist. Archibald had a great love of French culture, and wanted the fountain to commemorate the association of Australia and France during World War One.

The French artist François-Léon Sicard was chosen to design the fountain. Sicard was one of the foremost sculptors of his day but had never been to Sydney, so had to work with photographs and sketches of the proposed site. He chose a number of classical themes to celebrate the French-Australian liaison. Atop the fountain is Apollo giving life to nature, with the three side piers containing respectively Diana, Goddess of Hunting bringing harmony to the world, Pan watching over the fields (see photo below of his wonderful head) and the powerful figure of Theseus conquering the Minotaur, symbolising sacrifice for the common good (see photo below of all that rippling muscle).

The story from concept to completion was not an entirely easy one. Archibald’s bequest required the funds set aside for the sculpture to be held for seven years after his death in 1919 before it could be touched, by which time it had grown to the considerable sum of  £17,000. The sculpture was commissioned and completed in Paris in 1926, but upon arrival in Australia £675 of customs duty was assessed as payable. By this time however the funds from the bequest were exhausted and for three years the sculpture sat in packing cases, whilst bureaucratic madness reigned, until finally the Federal government stepped in and waived the duty, allowing the fountain’s opening to proceed in March 1932. Sadly M Sicard never visited Sydney to see his masterpiece in position.

The current conservation work being undertaken for the City of Sydney involves the careful cleaning of all the elements, the waxing of the bronze figures and the repointing of the granite base and surround. We are happy to report that the fountain is in good shape. The waxing helps to not only bring up the colour of the bronze, but more importantly to protect the surface from the corrosion that results from traffic pollution and salt in the sea air. However, in time the wax breaks down so these regular visits (every five years or so) ensure M Sicard’s work continues to delight both Sydneysiders and visitors alike.


Monday, September 23, 2013

Vale Ian Waterhouse

Eryldene, that little gem of an historic house in Gordon on the upper North Shore of Sydney, recently lost its last direct contact with the family who built it, with the death of Ian Waterhouse.

Ian, who was in his 90s, was the last surviving of the four sons of Eben Gowrie Waterhouse and his wife Janet.  E.G. Waterhouse, as he was known, commissioned Hardy Wilson to design Eryldene in the Greek Revival style at a time when such architecture was not in favour, and together with its pavilions and world famous camellia gardens they created what Peter Watts (ex director of the Historic Houses Trust  of NSW) has described as ' the most exquisite house in Australia'.

Despite the house having three bedrooms, the four boys were brought up sleeping on the enclosed verandas whether in summer or winter, as various relatives came to live with the family long term.

Ian told me that the each boy had a drawer for their clothes in their parent’s bedroom and a box for their toys in the study - a far cry from today's child's material possessions!
Ian had a distinguished career as an academic specialising in pyscho analysis and as one of the founding professors of Macquarie University.  He was a delightful man with a quick wit and a warm smile for everyone. His stories about growing up at Eryldene provided that primary resource which is invaluable in understanding any historic house and its context.

One great story particularly stands out for me. In 1934 his father, by this time professor of German at Sydney University,  took a sabbatical and travelled to Europe. There he met with Mussolini through a link engineered by the Italian consul general in Sydney and had a good old natter with Il Duce in Italian about the merits of the leader's beautification of Rome then underway, and the fact that all the trains now ran on time.

From there he travelled to Berlin, and amazingly managed to snare a meeting with Hitler, based on the premise that Hitler (as with Mussolini) was interested in how his native language was being taught overseas. Bear in mind that this was 1934.

Anyway between the appointment being made and the appointment itself, the Night of the Long Knives occurred and Waterhouse was sure his meeting would be cancelled as the country was in turmoil.  However, he received notification that Hitler would still meet him and headed off through endless security points to meet the Fuhrer. He found Hitler looking exhausted and (he suspected) on the verge of a nervous breakdown. After some initial chit chat about Waterhouse’s work at Sydney University, Hitler launched into a tirade against the international media’s criticism of his recent handling of events.
Waterhouse replied in forthright fashion with words to the effect that if he, Hitler, went around executing opponents without trial, then he is likely to be criticised. Whereupon Hitler let fly about how he alone had saved Germany from civil war and  why didn’t the world understand. A ranting Hitler foaming at the mouth whilst sitting next to Waterhouse on a sofa was clearly a highly discomforting experience, with Waterhouse remarking that not only did he end up sweating profusely but that he also concluded he  was in the presence of a madman.

Great stuff and what an experience to have anchored back to Eryldene, where no doubt the story was told to many a guest around the Waterhouse dining table. As so often it is the stories around these historic houses that bring them to life, rather than their physical elements.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Environmental Guidelines - Directorial interest at last

Arriving at the Museums Australia annual conference in Canberra a couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to be greeted by the news that CAMD (the Council of Australian Museum Directors) had the day before agreed to put sustainability as a priority action item for their next period of operation.  As Andrew Sayers, the soon to depart Director of the National Museum of Australia, summed it up in an article in the Canberra Times;

The costs of maintaining collections are rising dramatically and museums worldwide are sharing ideas about how to make operations more cost effective. When I began working in art museums 30 years ago, it was a matter of pride for museum managers to maintain temperature and humidity settings within very narrow bands of variation all day, all year. Nowadays we recognise such conditions come at considerable environmental cost. The profession is looking, with some urgency, at ways of achieving acceptable conditions without the giant carbon footprints.

Read more here.
We, who have been talking this talk for the last few years, have always known that the key to moving forward was to get the museum and gallery directors on board with the issue. Some have been there for a while, witness Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of the Tate, at the IIC Climate Dialogue in London in 2008 saying he had no problem asking visitors to wear overcoats in winter rather than turn the heating up. Or these acerbic comments (and backhand slap to conservators) from Maxwell Anderson, formerly director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and now director of the Dallas Museum of Art, when he said this:
Throughout their history, art museums have spawned and fostered a subculture indifferent to developments in the world at large. Our ocean liner-like art galleries are slow to change course even in the face of evidence demanding it. A critical illustration of this habit is the rigid formula arrived at long ago that prescribes the set points of relative humidity and temperature in our museums.
It remains an unshakable conviction for most conservators and administrators that unless a museum can guarantee lenders that its interior climate is 20 degrees celsius and 50 per cent relative humidity (with an allowance for minor fluctuations), it has no business asking for loans, and cannot be trusted with its own collection. That conviction informs many facets of a museum’s operations beyond the cost, including how art is borrowed, lent, shipped, installed and stored.
I was then quoted in The Australian the week following the Conference on the issue, which you can read about here.

There is at last traction in this space, but as I wrote about in my previous blog on this issue, there are going to be no easy answers.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Photography in Museums

I was sent this image by a colleague in the UK, questioning whether this is a standard Aussie museum greeting. It's so bad that I thought initially it must be a set up. I hope it is, but next time I am in Parramatta I shall check it out.

It does however raise the ongoing issue of whether or not to allow photography in museums. This is being discussed at present on various professional forums and is the subject of a specialist article in the latest edition of the UK  Museums Journal ( December 2012) The standard response in the past has been a no-no particularly in art galleries, for two basic reasons:

1) that the high lux level of the camera flash significantly increases the rate of fading of artworks and

b) that the process of photographing an object is a disturbance to other visitors.

The reality in 2013 is that almost every visitor carries a camera with them in the form of a mobile phone. Moreover many visitors live in a world where the sharing and commenting on photos is almost as ubiquitous as the exchange of messages.  Museums are also increasingly using the technology of mobiles to allow access to further information, whether through QR codes, NFC ( near field communication) , or visual recognition ( see the Getty's experience of this).  All require the phone camera to be offered up to the object or associated label, so how is a poor gallery attendant going to work out whether an actual photo is being taken.

Added to this , the UK National Gallery has studied the fading effects of flash, and has concluded it is absolutely minimal, needing millions of flash events before any damage can be detected.

On top of this a recent UK Museums Association survey that showed 83% of museum staff believe visitors should be allowed to take photos, as it actively helps engagement, and by the sharing of images through Instagram and Pinterest can be used as part of a marketing strategy.

So it seems the only sensible thing to do is to work out how to maximise the benefit to the museum, and actively encourage it.

Two words of caution however. One is to watch out for copyright issues, particularly when allowing photography of loan items - many museums are advising that such objects cannot be photographed for this reason. The other is to ask visitors to turn their flash function off, so as to limit the disturbance to other visitors.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Environmental Guidelines - the Munich conference wash up

It has taken me longer than I expected to digest the Munich ' Climate for Collections' conference, not just because the content was so full on, but also because the conclusions are difficult to summarise.  What I can relay is that the proposed voting with red and green cards at the conclusion of the conference to flush out the general view of the delegates to relaxing or not relaxing environmental parameters sensibly did not go ahead. The reason for this was simply that  the issue is clearly not as simple as this.

So where do I read the current situation sits?  Somewhere along the following lines:

-  existing  environmental parameters for collections are based on a blanket approach, and are unnecessarily tight for all but the most vulnerable of artworks, e.g. panel paintings, and ignore the issue of 'proofed' RH, that is the extremes to which the artwork has already been exposed in its lifetime

-  major museums and galleries worldwide are recognising this and implementing relaxed parameters, e.g. The Tate, the Smithsonian and the V&A.

-  however a significant proportion of the conservation profession are not convinced that the risks in relaxing these parameters can be safely managed, a position best articulated by the National Gallery

- we are not going to achieve consensus amongst conservators internationally on this and therefore there will be no new blanket environmental standards ( coming to this realisation was my big take away from Munich)

But what we cannot do is to throw up our hands and say this is all too hard, not least because, in my view, folks, this is about the planet ( witness the news from the Climate Conference in Doha this week).  There are a number of ways forward :

Firstly,  in my experience air conditioning engineers and building managers are often not achieving the maximum efficiencies from HVAC systems, that is they know how they are built and operated, but are not focused on achieving optimum efficiency . To do so requires dialogue with the museum' s conservators, which is invariably not taking place.

Secondly, this dialogue can effectively achieve substantial energy savings without major capital investment and without sacrificing preservation quality, whilst safely managing any associated risks to collections. I have seen it in action.

Thirdly, this requires a holistic understanding of the collections, HVAC systems and capabilities, buildings, outdoor climate and infrastructure/capabilities of the staff .  What is clear is that every situation is unique.

This is way too important an issue to pull up the 'too hard' white flag on. You will hear more from me on this shortly.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Environmental Guidelines for Museums - the latest

Climate for Collections is the title of the conference I am currently attending at the Doerner Institute in Munich.  Part of the 4 million Euro Climate for Culture , the conference is seeking to establish consensus amongst conservators about the levels to which environmental standards in museums and galleries can be relaxed.  I have previously blogged about this vexed question. 

And boy is it vexed!  I had imagined ( I now realise somewhat naively) that I was coming to a meeting where we would be in general agreement on the sustainability and economic need to relax these standards within carefully defined guidelines.  

What I have walked into is a major reaction to the Bizot Group ( of museum directors) push to make these relaxed standards become a reality.  The German conservators in particular are fiercely resistant to any relaxation and see the Bizot push as being all about making loans more easily available between themselves.  So the National Gallery's view on this ( see previous blog) is more widely supported than I had realised.

All will come to a head on Friday when we vote individually where we stand with coloured cards ( red against the Bizot push, yellow for undecided and green for support).

My personal view is this is missing the point.  Let's ignore what the Bizot motives might be.  As conservators we are in a prime position to lead in this discussion which more and more is being driven by skyrocketing energy prices more than the morality of sustainability.  We understand  the ability of materials to cope or not to indoor climate fluctuations, the various damage functions, and the opportunities that exist to play with HVAC systems.

More very soon after Friday's vote!  

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Abu Dhabi museum story

No visit to Abu Dhabi, where I have just been working for three days, can avoid the extraordinary museum building program taking place on Saadiyat Island just a bridge away from the CBD. It's a surreal confluence of 'name' architects competing with each other to produce the masterpiece of the area. Norman Foster is at work on the new Zayed National Museum

 Frank Gehry on the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim

Jean Nouvel on the Louvre Abu Dhabi

and Zara Hadid on the Maritime Museum and Performing Arts Centre.

What the estimated $27 billion project will look like is currently explained in an impressive 15,500 sq m visitor centre known as the Manarat Al Saadiyat, which certainly helps as, despite an original opening date of 2014, at present there is little evidence of anything happening.

At one level it is going to be a great place to visit to see some extraordinary buildings, the Nouvel dome for the Louvre Abu Dhabi  being to my mind the future star of the show with its geometric lace patterns in the roof resulting in a rain of light. 

What is much less clear is what is going to go inside each of them, though presumably the Guggenheim and the Louvre will both draw extensively on their respective parental bodies. It is also unclear who will go to them apart from tourists as there is no local tradition of museum going. Cleverly a number of temporary exhibitions mounted with the British Museum are being run in the Manarat Al Saadiyat to get them into the swing of it.

And amazingly just across the Persian Gulf in Doha the Qataris are building their own version, with the Qatar National Museum designed by, you guessed it, Jean Nouvel.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Vienna and Conferences

Spending eight days conferencing in Vienna, as I did earlier this month, sounds like a tough gig, but heh someone's got to attend these conferences or they won't happen. In this instance it was the bi annual Congress of IIC, the International Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic works. I'm a bit of a groupie for these get togethers of conservators from around the world, this being my fourth one. I am also Vice President of IIC.
So what did I bring back from a week in this World Heritage city? As always at IIC conferences, a realisation of the wealth of conservation work which is going on in highly specialised areas all over the world. Conservation papers ranged from treatment of tin relief on thirteenth century Cypriot wall paintings to decorative paint on seventeenth century Flemish harpsichords, wall paintings in Tutankhamen's tomb, crystal torcheres in Hawaii and Le Corbusier kitchens.

Stand out moments for me were Kasi Albert from Artlab Australia tackling the difficult issue of what to do about rivets used in old ceramic repairs, Heather Tetley on the challenges of in situ historic carpet repairs in an aptly tilted paper "Underfoot and Overlooked", and Sarah Staniforth from the National Trust on 'Use it or Lose it", discussing the need to make the National Trust collections accessible, and accept that some damage may occur in the process.

Along the way I could not resist slipping out to explore the extraordinary diversity of Vienna's cultural collections from the fabulous KunstHistoriche Museum to the Albertina. Stand outs for me were:

- the collections of the Natural History Museum, which pays limited lipservice to modern interpretative methodologies and lives by the depth of its collections presented with minimal interpretation in beautiful mahogany showcases in stunningly decorated rooms

- the new Klimt exhibition at the Belvedere which employs a series of apt dual language quotes in English and German written high on the wall of each gallery thus avoiding a cram of people trying to catch up with storyboards

The next IIC Congress will be in Hong Kong in September 2014. As in the same month ICOM's Committee for Conservation will be meeting in Melbourne, it promises to be a big year for conservation conferences.